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Sunday, May 16, 2010, in Mandal, Norway


Hi all. We’re making our way around the Norwegian coast very, very slowly. Last week, we had just arrived in the resort town of Lillesand.

Town was quiet, and we took a walk and ended up at a Chinese restaurant for lunch. Ethnic restaurants aren’t nearly as common in Europe as they are in the US, and this one’s name “China House” was displayed in two languages on its marquee – Chinese and English. Norwegian did show up on the menu.

While we were eating, a lovely lady with piercing blue eyes looked at me as if to speak. I wasn’t sure she’d figured out that I couldn’t communicate in Norwegian, in this town that isn't normally bustling with Americans, even in summertime, which this decidedly was not. But it didn’t faze her at all when she asked, about my lunch, "Is that good?” in Norwegian, and then had to translate her question into English when she heard me say “Sorry?” We chatted for a few minutes about not much, and when her take-away order arrived and we were about to pay for our lunch, she invited us to her place for coffee. She was so sweet, and both of us were taken with this woman���s strong resemblance to Art’s late mother, whom we both loved dearly.

An eighty-eight-year-old widow, she lived alone in a garden-style apartment building. She’d lived in Lillesand for nearly 25 years, her family sprinkled elsewhere around Norway. She made us coffee and served us little cakes of orange and chocolate (“I certainly did not make these,” she said to me, though she did show us the gravlax that she cures herself with cognac, salt and sugar.)

We sat in her apartment of curios and memories, enjoying her company and the company of her energetic bichon frise. She’d traveled a lot, and served for a time as a physical therapist on a cruise ship on routes between New York and Bermuda and out of Los Angeles and Alaska. We looked through family pictures and maps, talked about travel and life, and couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Dawdling in Lillesand seemed like our best strategy. The weather wasn’t ideal for sailing down the coast, and we had nearly a month to get to Scotland, with only a few sailing days necessary to get to our crossing point. Furthermore, an errant package that should have met us in Sweden was delayed several days, and we needed to meet it in Kristiansand, only about twenty miles from where we were. The package hadn’t arrived in Sweden yet, let alone Norway, and we were most likely going to backtrack via public transit to Kristiansand sometime in the next week. The more we sailed, the longer the bus ride back.

For several days, the weather was lovely for outdoor activities, if outdoor activities meant skiing. The sun was bright and the wind was blowing. Art and I would leave the boat in our down parkas, zipped to our necks, and I’d be wearing a wool beret and my fleece mittens with their little convertible fingers. We’d get ashore and see folks walking around in long-sleeved shirts, or sitting on the patios of harborside restaurants. Half of them were slurping up ice cream at any given time. But even the chill didn’t keep us from having lunch out, albeit indoors.

After a few days of Lillesand, we realized that a lovely summer resort probably isn’t the place to land for more than a few days. Even in summer, there’s a limit to the number of times that a walk down the four blocks of village is exciting. We were ready for a slightly larger municipality.

We woke up early and prepared to leave for Mandal, another resort town, but one that had a little more infrastructure. Art’s first task was to brush the ice off of the cockpit seats. We layered up, left the dock, and unpeeled under the cockpit cover.

The waters were uncrowded, except for the occasional cargo ship or fishing boat. On this trip, we saw a small open motorboat that was apparently manned by pirates. At least, that’s the message we took from the good-sized pirate flag flying on a stick the length of the vessel. This particular pirate image was of a skull and crossbones in black-and-white, set off by a jaunty red scarf around the temples. We didn’t worry too much that we’d be boarded.

We sailed in light winds and arrived in Mandal in late afternoon. The guest docks were mostly empty, and we tied ourselves off, preparing to go into town. Just as we got off the boat, another sailboat docked, this one with Inverness as its port of call. Indeed, this was the first stop for this boat since leaving Scotland, and we delayed our visit onshore, accepting their invitation for a beer in their cockpit. They’d just spent the last few days at sea, sailing the reciprocal of the journey we’ll be taking soon. Within an hour they were gone again.

As quiet as it was in Mandal in late afternoon, the next day, a religious holiday in anything-but-pious Norway, was an opportunity to close down the town. Here we were in a holiday town, but the tourist office was closed, and almost nobody was out and about. There was nothing to do anyway, but that’s not the point. At home, we’re used to commerce filling the holiday void by providing opportunities for people to part with their money. Our experience in Scandinavia is that people take advantage of time off by actually spending it quietly with their loved ones. A novel approach.

This holiday wasn’t happy news for us. The package we’d been awaiting hadn’t made it out of Customs in Oslo in time for a Wednesday delivery. Thursday was a shutout. Friday was the only chance we’d have to pick it up in Kristiansand before another frustrating wait.

The package left Customs, according to the tracking number. The list started to show a Friday delivery date in Kristiansand. We began to make plans to take a bus there.

Friday arrived, and the delivery date mysteriously disappeared from the carrier’s website. The status went back to a scan in Oslo. Soon the delivery date was changed – to Tuesday. Monday, National Day in Norway, is a day when everything stops. I’m almost surprised that the electricity is still on. So the package that we hoped to meet in Sweden would not show up anywhere near us for at least two weeks. The amount of postage for it to chase us around and bus fare for us to chase it back was starting to rival the cost of the original product.

We had another task for Kristiansand, and decided that we’d get it accomplished on Friday anyway, package or no package. A forty-five-minute bus ride took us by an endless parade of small, picturesque farms. The hills behind the roadside farms were two-toned with dark green needles of winter and the pale emerging leaves of spring. Grass generously-watered by April showers shimmered in the bright sun. The color made my eyes almost hurt. We passed little fjords and archipelagoes that reminded me of eastern Sweden, right down to the Swedish-style cabins festooned with vertical brown slats.

Kristiansand is the fifth-largest city in Norway, a country not particularly known for population density. The city was once a polluted, industrial port, but recent investment has revitalized the harbor area and redirected what was once waste into usefulness by recycling. We stepped off the bus and into the bustling downtown area. Customs wasn’t far away.

We never know what to expect from a visit to Customs in Norway. Virtually every time we’ve visited, we’ve had to insist that we would like them to sign papers for us. They always assure us that no papers are necessary. Well, we explain, perhaps not necessary for our visit to Norway, but we need to get the boat out of the European Union from time to time, and we need them to provide proof that we’ve done that. Otherwise, we’d need to pay the EU VAT sales tax, which is a bit like paying a fifteen or twenty percent sales tax on your new house.

On one of our forays to get our paperwork in order, a surly Customs woman, on hearing that we didn’t want to pay sales tax in the EU, decided that maybe we should pay Norway’s sales tax. She decided this after she’d insisted we needed no papers and just after she got wind of the idea of a large payment. We left that town immediately.

Generally, the Customs people in Norway had been genial and competent, and the man in Kristiansand was no exception. We helped out by providing our most-recent stamped form from a previous visit; he found a dusty blank one somewhere in a file cabinet, and filled it out for us in a flash. Within a half hour of our arrival in town, we’d crossed a task off of our list. We spent the next few hours wandering through the harbor and its fish market, walking up the pedestrian-only shopping street, and having lunch. Then we lumbered back onto a bus and rode back to Mandal.

So we’ll be sitting here for at least a few more days, waiting for our package to arrive, getting our package, and then waiting for weather, eventually to find a good crossing point and good winds to blow us to Scotland. Hope that you’re all having a good spring. We miss you.

Love, Karen (and Art)